Wildfire recovery well under way at Keysight Technologies

After the October wildfires, contractors for Keysight Technologies removed more than 1 million pounds of debris from the company’s Santa Rosa headquarters.

Keysight’s global workforce donated more than $1 million to help colleagues in Santa Rosa who lost 119 homes to the most destructive wildfires in state history.

And the company, the world’s largest electronics measurement business, by January had spent $7 million on fire-?related expenses, including costs to lease and equip temporary quarters for?1,200 employees in Rohnert Park and Petaluma.

The numbers provide insight into the challenges Keysight faced as it helped its displaced workers, restored damaged facilities and resumed design and production operations in Sonoma County.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, a crisis of this magnitude,” Keysight CEO Ron Nersesian said in a recent interview.

He called the response of his staff amazing, and he considered their efforts - especially “the way we took care of our people” - the proudest accomplishment of his career spanning more than three decades.

“This is definitely the thing I feel best about in my professional life,” Nersesian said.

Six months after the fires, recovery efforts continue at Keysight’s headquarters on Fountaingrove Parkway. About 300 of its 1,500 permanent, temporary and contract workers still report to interim quarters in Rohnert Park. All are expected to return to the Santa Rosa facility by the end of May.

At the campus, smoke and heat damage required the removal of 37,000 ceiling tiles in four massive buildings. Roughly 1,200 office cubicles were replaced, as well as carpets and heat-damaged windows.

“Everything that was soft had to be replaced,” Hamish Gray, a senior vice president, said during a tour of the campus earlier this month. “Everything that was hard had to be cleaned.”

The flames that struck Keysight were among several North Bay wildfires that claimed 40 lives and destroyed?6,200 homes. The infernos, which began on the night of Oct. 8, became the most destructive wildfires in state history. Insured losses totaled nearly $10 billion.

Among those killed was Michel Azarian, a 41-year-old Keysight engineer who died from severe burns while fleeing the Tubbs fire as it leveled his Mark West Springs home.

Keysight is the largest company ever based in Sonoma County. With annual revenues of $3.2 billion, it employs roughly 12,600 workers in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Its products are used by the world’s largest tech and telecom companies in such fields as wireless, aerospace and defense, networking, automotive and devices characterized under “the Internet of Things.”

Keysight’s ties to Sonoma County began in 1972 when Hewlett-Packard opened operations here and went on to develop 1 million square feet of office and production space at the Fountaingrove campus. HP’s measurement business later split off to become Agilent Technologies, which at its height employed more than 5,000 workers in the county. In 2014, Keysight split off from Agilent to become its own publicly traded company.

Throughout the decades, the county has benefited from the high-paying jobs offered by Keysight and its predecessors, said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. Also, he said, from its earliest days as Hewlett-Packard until the present, the business has set the standard for giving back to the community, especially by encouraging its staff to volunteer with a range of local organizations.

“I think that was HP’s gift to Sonoma County,” said Stone.

When the wildfires struck, Keysight officials quickly set up an emergency response center to plan recovery efforts and to help spread news to their workers, customers and investors. Crisis team members gathered in the Petaluma dining room of Claire McCarthy, the company’s global director of security and environmental, health and safety. For roughly the next 10 days, Nersesian said, McCarthy’s home became the center for managing the response efforts.

Nersesian had been in Germany when the fires erupted. He soon boarded a plane and returned to Santa Rosa on Tuesday morning Oct. 10.

One of his first priorities was to find temporary quarters that could hold at least 1,000 workers.

Within two days the company had secured space for 100 workers in Petaluma and for 1,100 in Rohnert Park at SOMO Village, originally built as a Hewlett-Packard facility and closed by Agilent in 2004.

Keysight also quickly set up an employee relief center in Santa Rosa that provided meals, supplies and other relief for workers who had lost homes or been displaced by the fires. The company arranged for workers to receive counseling, legal guidance and help finding temporary housing.

Keysight also stepped in to help relieve financial pressures. Nersesian announced the company would provide $10,000 each to those who lost a home and $1,000 each to those evacuated from their homes.

Nersesian said he sought to quickly assure his workers that “nobody is going to lose their job because of the fires.” Permanent staff, temporary workers and contractors all would continue to receive paychecks while waiting to return to work.

He characterized such actions as the right thing to do for his employees. “Also,” he said, “it was best for the community to keep people staying in Sonoma County and in the North Bay.”

When allowed to return to the headquarters campus, Keysight staff members found the Tubbs fire had destroyed two large modular buildings, including one that had held the collected archives of founders William Hewlett and David Packard. The company’s archive expert had said the collection would be safe from a major earthquake, Nersesian said, and “we thought an earthquake would hit us before a fire would.”

Keysight reopened the Fountaingrove facility on a limited basis four weeks after the fire. At the time it reported that “the majority of production-related facilities are now in operation.”

As part of that recovery effort, senior leaders spent long days at the site and sometimes slept there in rented recreational vehicles as they worked with teams to restore production and to plan for the rehabilitation of office and other spaces.

Nersesian said vice president Pat Harper, who oversees local production, and his team played a key role in the recovery efforts.

The company decided to start a third production shift to deal with a backlog of work caused by the fire. As part of those efforts, Keysight converted 100 temporary workers to permanent status and added another 85 temporary workers, Nersesian said.

The company expects to eliminate the production backlog by late summer.

Keysight also undertook extra efforts to feed both its widely dispersed workers and contractors brought onto the main campus to help with recovery. Nersesian said the company served up 80,000 free meals in various locations in the months after the fires.

Meanwhile, Keysight employees at 145 locations around the world asked how they could help. Workers were allowed to convert a portion of their vacation into cash. Donations of vacation time and cash have raised $1.04 million for the company’s fire survivors.

Over the winter survivors told Nersesian that they lacked the time needed to deal with insurance companies and contractors, as well as other matters required for rebuilding. He responded the company would provide them a paid day off each month to work on personal recovery matters.

“Otherwise,” he recalled saying, “it’s going to drag out for you forever. … We want you back happy and healthy as fast as possible.”

Stone likened the crisis response and recovery efforts of Keysight leaders and staff to fixing the plane “while you’re flying it.”

He noted how founders Hewlett and Packard were known for developing the “HP Way,” a less authoritarian management style that encouraged collaboration and innovation in solving problems and also embraced a responsibility toward employees and community. He suggested that if the two founders were alive today, they would have been impressed to see how Keysight staff responded to the disaster by displaying “the ethic they instilled.”

“How proud and pleased they would have been,” Stone said.

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